FLB: I love the title of your book. Do you really avoid books with “journey” in the title?
STREETER: I do kinda side-eye them. It’s become such a cliché word that doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean. I know that it’s meaningful to a lot of people, but I wanted readers to know that my book wasn’t offering some candy-colored look at grief that was some standard they were supposed to live up to. There is no template.
FLB: Who is this book for?
STREETER: Everyone who ever lost someone or loves someone who did and wants to know how to talk to them. Also humans who like words J And Shelia E. references.
FLB: Are you working on a follow up book?
STREETER: Yes! One chapter down. So many to go.
FLB: What are you most looking forward to in the coming year?
STREETER: Turning 50 and starting the next part of my life in the city I love (Baltimore). Also the vaccine. So I can go sit on an island somewhere safely and dream. Also? A less-sucky world.
FLB: What has been keeping you sane?
STREETER: Yoga. My faith. My funny kid and family. Walking past beautiful old buildings and wondering who lived there. Fried tofu.
FLB: What gives you hope?
STREETER: That humanity can learn. We have to. We can do hard stuff.
It’s Thanksgiving week, a time to reflect on that for which we are grateful. And even within the insanity of a year that brought us a global pandemic, extreme racial unrest, and a surreal presidential election, there were still rays of light. Here at the Fountain Theatre, one of our great joys came in the form of creating a stage/screen hybrid video adaptation of Ifa Bayeza’s stunning play, The Ballad of Emmett Till. If you have not seen it, there is still time. But the streaming of this acclaimed video-on-demand production ends on December 1st, so don’t delay. Tickets are just $20 and are available here.
The Ballad of Emmett Till is a lyrical retelling of the true events that kick-started the Civil Rights movement, and blends history, mystery and legend with accents of music and poetry. The Fountain’s widely heralded, multiple award-winning 2010 west coast premiere was helmed by Shirley Jo Finney, and starred the impeccable ensemble of Bernard K. Addison, Rico E. Anderson, Lorenz Arnell, Adenrele Ojo and Karen Malina White. Actors and director reunited over the summer to create this unique VOD version of our original stage production, which is enhanced by the use of music, sound, visual imagery and various film techniques. It debuted on August 28th, which marked the 65-year anniversary of Till’s brutal murder. His death had not only become a rallying cry for the times, but it has continued to resonate, and activate civic action, across the decades that followed.
Emmett Till was a charming, precocious 14-year-old boy who lived in Chicago with his mother, Mamie. In August 1955, he traveled down south to the Mississippi Delta to visit his uncle, Mose “Preacher” Wright, and other family members. One sunny day he and his cousins and a few friends went into town, and the young teenager stopped at a local market to buy some sweets. Accounts differ as to what actually happened to provoke the tragedy that followed, but it is widely believed that Till, who used whistling to help control a lifelong stutter, innocently whistled at the white, married, female store clerk.
As a result, Till was later kidnapped from his uncle’s house in the middle of the night by the woman’s husband and his half-brother. The men took the boy down to the Tallahatchie River and forced him to strip. Then they beat him, shot him in the head, and weighted his body down with a heavy metal cotton gin fan that they wrapped around his neck with barbed wire. Three days later, the boy’s naked, bloated body was discovered floating in the river.
Mamie insisted that her only child’s grotesquely disfigured body be returned to her in Chicago, untouched. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she famously said, and insisted on an open casket with a glass shield to contain the stench of her son’s decomposing corpse. The media had started carrying the news of the murder, and Mamie encouraged even more attention by publically displaying the body. Mourners gathered around the clock to pay their respects. The viewing went on for four days.
It might sound odd, during this week of focused gratitude, to suggest taking these final days of opportunity to view the Fountain’s VOD production of The Ballad of Emmett Till as part of our expressions of thankfulness. I feel it is not. The joyous way he lived his short life, contrasted with the ugliness of his premature death, led to a social rebellion that’s still being waged today. We entered the summer of 2020 with streets across America being crowded with marches born of unfettered rage against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and the long-shadow history of Sandra Bland, Freddy Gray, Walter Scott, the nine men and women of the Episcopal Church in Charleston, and the hundreds more that came before them. Including, of course, Emmett Till.
The Ballad of Emmett Till is available through December 1st. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here. I’m willing to bet you’ll be grateful you watched it.
Terri Roberts is a freelance writer and the Coordinator of Fountain Friends, the Fountain Theatre’s new volunteer program. She also manages the Fountain Theatre Café.
In between BLM protests and existential quarantine queries, writer/creator Larry Powell adapted his play The Gaze…No Homo (2020/2021 Eugene O’Neill NPC finalist) into a new media series. The Fountain Theatre’s new digital platform, Fountain Stream, has partnered with Powell and Angelica Robinson of Tell Me a Story Productions to present thisbold, funny episodic tragicomedy for our times, a 12-part, multi-platform online experience unlike anything audiences have seen before. The first three short-form episodes of The Gaze… No Homo will begin streaming on Friday, Nov. 20, with episodes four, five and six going online Friday, Nov. 27; episodes seven, eight and nine on Friday, Dec. 4; and the final three episodes becoming available on Friday, Dec. 11. Tickets are free at fountaintheatre.com/now-upcoming/the-gaze.
No Homo is the first in Powell’s The Gaze cycle of plays that examines the process of building culturally specific and queer works of color in certain historically white spaces. The story of an openly Black queer artist as he navigates the rehearsal process at a very white American theater festival, The Gaze tackles hard topics head on. It wrestles with the question, “Why strain to be free under a gaze fixed on your imprisonment, when it’s you who is holding the key?”
In episode one, we meet protagonist Jerome Price, played by Galen J. Williams (national touring and Broadway productions of Motown the Musical) as he arrives at the prestigious Evergreen Theatre Festival (“where the brightest and boldest new American voices are watered with wisdom, fed with fodder and nurtured with nourishment”). Evergreen interim artistic director Miranda Cryer (Sharon Lawrence of NYPD Blue, Dynasty, Shameless, The Ranch and much more) has always been an outspoken champion of diverse voices — including that of emerging, Black queer playwright Shaun Korey, played by Devere Rogers (My Spy and IFC’s Sherman’s Showcase). Relegated to Zoom by the pandemic, Cryer is directing the world premiere of Korey’s newest work, No Homo, but “artistic differences” between her and festival newbie Price threaten to blow up the process. Eugene Byrd (Dr. Clark Edison in Bones) and TC Carson (Living Single)star as Price’sfellow actors Kendrell Thompson and Buddy DuPois, each of whom has learned to navigate the hidden dangers and microaggressions of the entertainment business in his own way — as has long-time stage manager Sherry Grosse (Yvette Cason, original Broadway cast and feature film version of Dreamgirls) andgender-fluid ASM Tee (internet personality, actor and model Jason “Freckle” Greene).
Powell states, “In order to properly experience my own exodus of the decentralization of the white gaze in my creative work and reclaim my black ass imagination I had to stare the poison in the face and, through the telling of Jerome’s story, turn it into the medicine decolonization so fiercely provides. That I was able to make this piece in the summer of 2020 and share this piece that same summer and beyond is a divine triumph. A blessing standing on sacred ground and under one gaze only: the ancestral one. Thankful to any and all who make it possible for others to catch the vision.”
The creative team behind The Gaze… No Homo includes episode directors Joanna Strapp (episode 1), Larry Powell (episodes 2, 11 and 12), Zhailon Levingston (episode 3), Satya Bhabha (episode 4), Reginald L. Douglas (episode 5), Amber A Harris (episode 6), Jonathan McCrory (episode 7) and Bianca Laverne Jones (episodes 8 and 9); as well as editor Joey Scoma, composer Robert Revell, branding and graphic design artist Samia Zaidi, website designer Nick Ducassi, and co-producer Haley Rawson. The series is produced by producer/executive producers Angelica Robinson, Spencer Williams and Matt Lubetich, along with executive producers Larry Powell, Zhailon Levingston and Devere Rogers and executive producer/director of photography John Macdonald.
Larry Powell is a writer, actor, director and producer born and raised in South Central L.A. As an actor, he’s originated and premiered roles in some of the most exciting new plays in America including The Christians by Lucas Hnath, The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez, Father Comes Home From The Wars by Suzan Lori Parks (opposite Sterling K. Brown), Brokeology by Nathan Louis Jackson, and he played the title role in While I Yet Live by Billy Porter. He is a two-time Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award-winner, and has been nominated for numerous Ovation, NAACP and San Francisco Bay Area theater awards as well as for Audelco and Audie awards. Larry is also a published playwright and professional screenwriter, with three plays scheduled to receive world premieres over the next two years. He is a core playwright at the Lark Play Development Center. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, Larry is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts MFA Acting program. He is the founder and creative director of the Powell Academy of the Performing Arts, an arts organization providing high-performance training and resources to historically marginalized artists on the rise in the mainstream entertainment industry.
CLICK HERE To watch The Gaze… No Homo beginning Friday, Nov. 20.
A review of Holli Harms’ play Shouting Down A Quiet Life stated, “It is only a matter of time before this play premieres on Broadway”. Set in South Carolina, 1968, the play sheds light on the Orangeburg Massacre, in which highway patrolmen opened fire on 200 unarmed black students at a peaceful Civil Rights demonstration. This Saturday, Harms will share excerpts from the play and other works, and share her hopes for theatre and the country. Here, she discusses how she reconciled her conflicted feelings about writing the play, what it means to be a writer from the South, and the trials and triumphs of raising her teenager daughter.
Your critically acclaimed play Shouting Down A Quiet Life is so brilliantly crafted and authentic that many are surprised to discover it was written by a white woman. Did you ever feel conflicted/hesitant about writing the play? How did you overcome those feelings? What inspired you to tell that particular story?
I absolutely felt conflicted and that I had no right to this story. But it wouldn’t let me go. And actually, I remember speaking with you about another play of mine dealing with slaves in South Carolina that I felt I should not write, but you told me, “If it’s the story that you want to, need to, write – write it.” That is a question I constantly think about, authorship and ownership.
The story of three black men killed on a college campus in 1968, about a 50-minute drive from where I grew up, I discovered, of all places, when I was watching a documentary that I got at the library about the McGovern campaign and why he lost in 68’. In the film, Dick Gregory, comedian and activist, talked about the Orangeburg Massacre and what a disgrace that no knew about these killings, but only two years later Kent State happened and everyone knew about that, why? Because white kids were killed at Kent. I kept thinking does he mean Orangeburg SC? I started to research it and ended up connecting with the NAACP who invited me to a screening of a documentary about the Orangeburg Massacre at NYU, and at the end of the screening, a gentleman stood up and said, “I was there. I was shot. And I never told anyone.” I knew instantly that was the story I wanted to tell. The story of silence. The state silenced the story and the country didn’t hear it, but this man had done the same in his own life. What does that do to a person?
Do you identify as a southern playwright? What does that mean to you?
I think of myself as a writer first, and then a writer from the South. I do think that growing up in a place where language and storytelling are so important had an influence on me. There are rich marvelous characters in the South both in its history and living around me when I was growing up, many quite controversial. Being from the South means that I get to use that richness in my writing, and I think that’s what propelled me on in writing Quiet Life.
As a winner of the Terrance G. Hall Fellowship, you were awarded a week-long residency in Dublin, Ireland. What was that experience like? What did you learn? What did you work on?
Oh, first the Irish have a gift of the gab that is delicious. We had a flat right by the Liffey and within walking distance of everything in Dublin. The Dublin Theatre Festival was going on when we were there so I got to see some excellent theatre. I was there to learn more about the Irish miners for a play that I’m still working on. I spent a lot of time at the National Library reading books on the Irish coal miner. The library is a non-lending library and so the only way to read many of their works is in person. I also spent time at the National Archive building going over old photo albums. Many families gift their family albums to the Archives. Here is something that I started to notice looking at the pictures that eventually went into my play COAL, in picture after picture of families all together I only noticed girls. No boys. Little girls in dresses, but not one boy. These are photos from the late 19th century to the 20th century. I asked the curator about it and he said, “Oh, yeah. Fairies take the boys. Look again at the pictures. See the boys with long hair in dresses.” Sure enough, a second look revealed that the boys were in disguise to fool the fairies. I was and am still working on that play about the life of coal miners, specifically about those in the Pennsylvania region. I would like to get back to Ireland and see more of the country. We were mostly in Dublin for my research and to see shows. I say we, as my husband and daughter who was seven at the time, came along.
I’ve always been fascinated by your background as a South Carolina native of German descent. Has your background informed your work? How so?
Oh, yes, so much of both of my backgrounds have colored my writing, especially the history of the two places. Small things like the rituals of hunters in Germany have found their way into my plays. Being the kid, whose family spoke German at home made us somewhat unusual in Columbia. We were also a military family and Fort Jackson, SC was the last place my dad was stationed. We arrived there from Germany when I was not yet four. We moved off Fort soon after our arrival in the states and lived not far from it. So every day of my childhood I would hear the revelry bugle call. My mother was a war bride as were many of the moms from the Fort. My mother often forgot English words, and sometimes the German equivalent as well, so she would make words up that she felt worked just fine. That has been a big part of my writing. She was a foreigner and embraced it. She didn’t’t really try to assimilate. Why bother when she was so much more interesting exactly the way she was.
Your short film Icarus Stops for Breakfast has won over 20 awards and been featured in 34 Festivals. What was the genesis of that project and how has the experience changed you?
I read the short story, Eating, by Rick Bass and instantly knew it was something I wanted to turn into a film. I took the short story to my director and had her read it and she agreed. It was not an easy script as we had to have an owl, donkey, and pig along with the actors to make it work. That process has opened me to a greater understanding of how story works on film, and how patience in the film world is a must. It was five years from the time we shot the film to the time it was ready for the festivals. We had CGI hold-ups, the music wasn’t working and the editing went through numerous renditions. We just weren’t getting it right until we got it right.
What have you been working on during the pandemic?
My problem is that I have too many ideas and projects swimming around in my noggin. I am working on a book, or I believe it is a book. It was a short story I woke up with in my head and poured it out on the page. It was a finalist with Fish Publishing. I read it over several times and thought, I want to expand on this one particular character in the story and the people around her. I have also just finished a Sci-Fi feature film script, and I am back at school, online getting my Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. That is taking up most of my time and energy, and has been a lot of work, but also been so wonderful as I have learned things that I can immediately apply to my writing.
What have been the challenges/rewards of raising a teenage daughter in the middle of a pandemic?
Having her home all day every day is a challenge and a reward. I get to listen in on her school work and recently I got to hear her give a talk about the LBGTQ community and the difficulties an individual faces when coming out to family and friends for the first time. It was a Social Studies discussion her 7th grade class had on Coming Out Day. I was so proud of her thoughtful, thought-provoking answer. I would not have been privy to that had she been in school that day. Mainly the time has been spent trying to get her off electronics and to go outside. She looks at me like, “What is this outside you speak of?”
What has been keeping you sane this year?
My family. My running. I started running 80 to 100 miles a month and that keeps me grounded. Kayaking all summer with my neighbor Nancy. All summer we had friends over every Saturday night for dinner. The same group, our bubble. We kept social distancing with outside dining and stayed safe. Having those get-togethers, sharing food and stories was so important to my sanity. Music. Music. Music. Putting on my Guardians of the Galaxy DVD and dancing my heart out or my Sammy Davis Jr. album – yup real album, and dancing to his joyful sound just lifts me. I have at my house a record player and tons of albums and so I can go from Sammy and Kate Smith, to Blood Sweat and Tears, to Tom Waits, to Bach and Mendelsohn. And of course, Arlo Guthrie whom our dog is named after.
What gives you hope?
That we just elected a woman who will be the first woman Vice President and she is a woman of color and intelligence and femininity and not afraid to be all that in one package. She has an inner strength that radiates out of her a glow of hope. That so many young women ran for positions in government on both sides of the aisle. That so many want to take away that aisle and make it truly a “United” states.
The resilience of people. Zoom arrived just in time and we all just started using it and creating on it and never looked back. The creativity of humans gives me hope. Seeing friend’s faces on Zoom, and seeing them laugh gives me hope for the day when I can again smash my face against theirs.
The Fountain Theatre has been awarded a grant in the amount of $42,300 through the LA County COVID-19 Arts Relief Fund administered by the LA County Department of Arts and Culture. The purpose of this funding is to provide economic relief to arts nonprofits suffering from business interruptions due to COVID-19-related closures from March 1 – December 30, 2020.
The Department of Arts and Culture received 357 applications that were audited by staff in two rounds for accuracy and eligibility.
“We thank the LA County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture for coming to the aid of the LA arts community in this period of crisis,” states Stephen Sachs, Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.
The mission of the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture is to advance arts, culture, and creativity throughout LA County. It provides leadership, services, and support in areas including grants and technical assistance for nonprofit organizations, countywide arts education initiatives, commissioning and care for civic art collections, research and evaluation, access to creative pathways, professional development, free community programs, and cross sector creative strategies that address civic issues. All of this work is framed by a longstanding commitment to fostering access to the arts, and the County’s Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative.
The Board of Supervisors recognizes the powerful impact of the arts on the quality of life across Los Angeles County’s 88 cities and approximately 140 unincorporated communities. The Department of Arts and Culture is pleased to be able to provide crucial support for the arts during this unprecedented time.
“Arts and culture play a critical role in the economic resiliency of Los Angeles County and in the social resiliency of our communities,” said Kristin Sakoda, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture. Supporting this sector’s survival will help to preserve our creative economy, the cultural identity and vitality of the region, and the well-being of our residents and communities where they live.”
Election Day has come and gone. As of this writing, millions of ballots are still being counted. The process may be slow and frustrating, but taking the time to make sure every voice, every vote, is heard and counted is American democracy in action. It’s why the Fountain Theatre launched its get-out-the-vote project, Raise Your Voice – Vote!, that lived in public spaces across Los Angeles on October 24th and 25th. The fact that you joined us and took action – that you raised your voice, you cast your vote, made your selfie videos encouraging others to do the same – means that you were a vitally important part of the process. And we wanted to say thank you. Thank you for participating, from the bottom of our hearts.
Over that last weekend in October, Raise Your Voice – Vote! actors Victor Anthony, Jessica Emmanuel, Wonjung Kim, Theo Perkins and Rayne J. Rayney – all COVID-tested, properly masked and with a supply of PPE’s – popped up at a variety of culturally different communities across Los Angeles with a mission to activate voter participation via socially-distanced guerrilla-style theatre. Raise Your Voice – Vote! was conceived by the Fountain’s Community Engagement Coordinator France Luce Benson, and co-directed by Benson and dancer/choreographer Lily Ockwell. It utilized some of America’s most iconic speeches about voting rights to create a choreographed collection of 10-minute theatre pieces, augmented with bits of song and movement, that were performed in front of surprised and appreciative audiences at Union Station, Little Tokyo, Fig and 7th Shopping Center, Leimert Park, Pan Pacific Park and Balboa Park.
“We wanted to create an event that was inspirational, but never didactic,” explained Benson. “The performers were in conversation with each other and with the people around them, blending, respecting and embracing whichever community we were in.”
The actors were supported in their travels and performances by Fountain staff and, for the first time ever, a wonderful group of recruited volunteers. (For more information on volunteer opportunities at the Fountain, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.) Raise Your Voice – Vote! was also presented in partnership with the volunteer group Big Sunday and The Social Ripple Effect, a non-profit organization committed to global change through local action. As part of our get-out-the-vote effort, SRE was on hand to distribute literature briefly outlining the significant propositions also on this year’s ballot.
The Raise Your Voice – Vote! performances were live-streamed throughout the weekend on the Fountain’s website and its Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram pages. Those live feeds were supplemented by the afore-mentioned selfie videos, posted hourly, that were submitted by actors, directors and producers; Fountain patrons, staff and board members; colleagues within the LA theatre community-at-large; plus educators and students, business leaders and soccer moms, and more. Dozens of videos flowed in, all of them with personal observations about the urgent need to vote in this, “the most important election of our lifetime.” They were witty. Heartfelt. Serious. Reflective. One video was even sung, a cappella, as a comedic duet version of The Star Spangled Banner! But all of them, in their own unique ways, were impassioned calls to action.
So, thank you for answering the call. For being part of a record-breaking turnout of voters who stood up and had the courage to say, with your vote, These are the people, the propositions and the measures I believe will best be of service to me and my country.
Still, we all know it’s not a fair election unless every voice is heard. And because the laws that govern when ballots can be opened and counted vary by location, a full and complete ballot count is going to take awhile. Unfortunately, there are those who are actively trying to halt this process and silence all those voices. We urge you: Don’t let them.
Raise your voice one more time and demand that every single vote be counted. Send a text, make a phone call, sign the petitions that are probably clogging your inbox right now. Take action. Stay involved.
In the meantime, while votes continue to be counted, enjoy these photos from the many stirring public performances of Raise Your Voice – Vote! And reflect on these words from Lyndon B. Johnson, which were part of the Raise Your Voice —Vote! live experience:
“Our mission is, at once, the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man…Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy. The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all of our people. Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this, there can, and should be, no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”
— Lyndon B. Johnson, March 15, 1965
Terri Roberts is a freelance writer and the Coordinator of Fountain Friends, the Fountain Theatre’s new volunteer program. She also manages the Fountain Theatre Café.
No trick or treating this year? The Fountain’s got you covered. Please be sure to bring your kids and grandkids to this week’s show, where our guest – Lynne Streeter Childress – will perform work from her show for young people.
I met Lynne Streeter Childress many moons ago in Miami, FL when I booked my first professional acting gig. We were part of a company that toured plays for young audiences about issues like domestic violence and homelessness. While the subjects are grim, the plays were full of hope and the creative process was full of light. The latter, largely due to Lynne’s exuberance and delightful sense of humor. Decades later, Lynne has her own company, producing plays for young audiences that address issues like tolerance and empathy. I spoke to Lynne about the origins of her company (Building Better People Productions), and what it’s like to balance her creative life with motherhood in the time of Covid.
What was the genesis of Building Better People Productions? I had always wanted to do my own stuff, and I knew that it would be for young audiences, and I knew that it was going to be something about building people up. Over the years I would start, and then put things on a shelf because I was working for other people, which actually was great, because I was gaining not only a paycheck, but support, and the chance to grow. In 2015, lots of things started to come together, good and bad, that kinda pushed me forward. I lost my brother in law, which was the 4th in a series of family losses. I had also started writing a piece about empathy that I planned to produce on my own somehow, and when the opportunity to perform part of it for a festival didn’t work out, that seemed like an open door to just do the thing for real. I was in the place to just move forward.
How will future productions address the moment we are in as a Nation? How do you tackle such complicated conversations? It’s made me want to continue to not run away from addressing hurt. Most of the shows that we have done have hard moments, where people are bullied, and lose family members, and have anxiety, and are treated bad because of differences. There is always a moment in rehearsal where I think “Is this too much?” And no, it’s not. Kids are smart. And I think that we insult them when we DON’T tackle things they are going through or that are going on around them. There has to be something between hitting them over the head and completely ignoring where we are with the isolation of COVID, and the sadness of where we are racially. I owe it to my kid, and all kids, to figure out how to do that respectfully. One more thing: we have always had a pretty diverse group of people that we work with, but I am committed to truly seeking out more people. I also want to do a show that is about a little black girl loving life. I needed to see more of that when I was a little kid, and now I want to do that. For little black girls and for everyone, to normalize that little black girls can just have joy.
You say that the adaptation of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” you performed in is your most favorite show you’ve ever done. Why? What made it so special? It was my first Equity show (although I am not a part of the union now currently), and I participated in a development reading of it, I was part of the original cast of the show, and in the first tour. I am on the cover of the script as a koala! It is the show that made me feel like I was really doing this, and I got to be at the Kennedy Center every day, which is the most beautiful space. I got to see something come off of the page, see it worked in the room with the playwright and composer in rehearsals. And it took me around the country, getting paid to perform and travel. It helped make me. Also, I think that I may have named my son after that show. It was years later, and the name Alexander came to me as a front runner, and I didn’t know why. It just felt right. When my son was a baby I was at a party for a friend, who had directed that first production of “Alexander”, and Judith Viorst,the writer of the show, was there, and I had not seen her in a while. She asked what my son’s name was; when I said “Alexander”, everyone started laughing. And I said, “WAIT! Did I name him for the show?” And maybe I did. It was in there somewhere.
You have a twin sister who also writes? Did you grow up writing together? Will you or have you ever collaborated? My sister is amazing. AMAZING. She has been a journalist for 27 years, and has won awards, and wrote a memoir that came out earlier this year called “Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like ‘Journey’ in the Title”, about losing her husband. We used to make up stories as little kids, and actually blogged together about our experiences in our 40s for a while. I produced and perform in a holiday play that she wrote, The Gift of the Mad Guy, about generosity, that Building Better People has performed yearly since 2016. I love saying her words, and I love sending her royalty checks.
Did becoming a Mom change you as an artist? If so, how? Yep. It’s made me want to make a world that he sees as lovely and that sees him as lovely. The third part of “We Got It” was inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and I was pregnant when Trayvon was murdered, and I felt the weight of how some people did not value the lives of young black men, and did not see their deaths as tragedies. That wrecked me for their parents, and I was about to BE a parent of a young black man, and me yelling on Facebook, while cathartic, wasn’t going to be enough. What I knew how to do was create. So, I wrote. My son has also inspired shows that I have written or that we have performed, that are things I want him to hear, like about keeping his imagination, and knowing his worth.
How will you make Halloween special for an 8-year-old in the middle of a Pandemic? Our plan is to have my sister and nephew and mom over (they are in our Covid circle), and we will wear costumes and eat candy. That’s a good plan. Family and sugar.
What’s been keeping you sane? God, and the idea that if we are in this place, then there has to be a way to work in it. If we are still here, when other people aren’t, there is something to do in it, even if that’s just to be grateful for being here. I have also learned a lot of grace for others because we are all struggling.
What gives you hope? That people are still creating and finding ways to be light for themselves, and then for other people. Seeing creative output gives me LIFE.
Are you ready to vote on November 3rd? Do you have plans to vote early? The Fountain Theatre seeks to activate people on the urgency of voting by launching Raise Your Voice – Vote!, a guerrilla style, immersive theater event set to take place this weekend at locations throughout the City of Los Angeles. Watch the live-stream every hour on the hour beginning at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, Oct. 24 and Sunday, Oct. 25 at www.FountainTheatre.com
Raise Your Voice – Vote! aims to build momentum and awareness about the upcoming election while bringing theater for the people to the people. A five-member acting ensemble will present a series of pop up performances in six public spaces, each representative of L.A.’s cultural landscape. Each performance will feature America’s most iconic speeches about voting rights, plus dance and song. Volunteers will be stationed at every location to offer assistance with voter registration and voter education.
Each of the performances will be live-streamed and will also be augmented by a series of surprise appearances, posts and performances on the Fountain Theatre’s social media pages in support of voter awareness.
This Saturday we are joined by playwright, director, and Founding Artistic Director of The Farm Theatre, Padraic Lillis. Founded in 2013, The Farm Theatre develops early career artists with limited support systems through workshops, productions, and mentoring. The Farm Theatre’s name is inspired by baseball’s “farm system” to develop new talent. Similarly, Lillis has devoted himself to developing new voices in theatre, as well as mentoring young artists through his work as an educator, and with his own work. His award-winning solo show Hope You Get To Eleven or What Are We Going to do About Sally, about suicide awareness, has been performed at high schools and colleges around the country – and he’ll share an excerpt with us this Saturday. Here, Lillis talks about the timeliness of that play, his love for the Yankees, and hopes for the future of theatre.
How did the Farm Theater come to be?
I am a member of the LAByrinth Theater Company in New York, NY and led the education program for a decade. It became clear that the artists and young companies that succeeded were those that had on going contact with mentors and had a community of peer support. When I had an impulse to start my own company, I recognized that my passion was not in developing and producing plays but that it was developing artists.
What seeds are you planting for the spring?
I’m developing a lot of new work and mentoring playwrights – and I’m investing in their work. I believe the work that we begin to write and fully develop will be ready to share publicly in the spring. Regardless of the form public productions will take in the spring – we will have a lot of new voices ready to share the stories.
You describe yourself as a life-long Yankee fan; Do you have a favorite memory watching the Yankees?
I grew up in Upstate New York. Fairport, a suburb of Rochester. I became a Yankee fan probably because of the great history of the team and our cable tv in the 70’s included channel 11 where I could watch the Yankees play every night. A favorite memory of watching Yankees – I have a lot, but one that stands out…and I talk about in my solo show, is game 5 of the 2001 World Series. Top of the 8th inning – and the Yankees are in the field – and the crowd starts chanting “Paul O’Neill, Paul O’Neill” – he’s in right field. He’s retiring after this year. This is his last game at the stadium and the crowd needed to let him know how much they appreciated and valued him. What makes it even more beautiful is that the Yankees were losing. They were about to lose the World Series…but the fans needed to tell Paul O’Neill how much he meant to them. I love that moment.
Do you feel your solo show Hope You Get to Eleven, or What are we going to do about Sally?, about suicide awareness, has significant relevance right now?
Right now, isolation is a major challenge. Our entire industry is shut down and each of us are being forced to reimagine how we create and share our work. It is incredibly difficult to reimagine your entire identity and how engage with the world. People need to know that they are not alone, that they are not the only ones experiencing difficulty, that need help – and that it is okay not to be perfect or to not know —- how to navigate this change. We’re all figuring it out.
Do you work with any suicide prevention organizations?
When I present this show for a public audience, I make it a point to raise funds and awareness for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. When I perform the show at high schools and colleges I do it in collaboration with the school counselors – and make sure that each performance has a post-show discussion. For days after each performance I hear audience members share their personal relationship with the issue. I believe the most valuable thing the show does is that it facilitates open dialogue about a disease that preys on secrecy.
How have you cared for yourself during this time?
I take a walk in nature every day. It gets me out of my apartment, away from my computer, and gives me a chance to appreciate the simplicity of life.
What’s been keeping you sane?
The daily walk. And baseball.
What brings you hope?
This. The fact that your theater has found a way to stay engaged with your community. The plays that people are writing. Zoom readings, audio plays, live streaming…all of the ways that people are finding to create and share their work. I think we can all agree that not all of the forms are completely satisfying – but that fact that we are continuing to create and to share the work is incredibly hopeful.
France-Luce Benson is a playwright and Community Engagement Coordinator for the Fountain Theatre.
The Fountain Theatre is readying Raise Your Voice – Vote!, a guerrilla style, immersive theater event set to take place over the course of two days at six locations throughout the City of Los Angeles. Watch the live-stream every hour on the hour beginning at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, Oct. 24 and Sunday, Oct. 25 at www.FountainTheatre.com.
Conceived by acclaimed playwright and Fountain Theatre community engagement coordinator France-Luce Benson and co-directed by Benson and Lily Ockwell, Raise Your Voice – Vote!aims to build momentum and awareness about the upcoming election while bringing theater for the people to the people. The five-member acting ensemble (Victor Anthony, Jessica Emmanuel, Wonjung Kim, Theo Perkins and Rayne J. Raney) will present a series of pop up performances in six public spaces, each representative of L.A.’s cultural landscape. Each performance will feature America’s most iconic speeches about voting rights, plus dance and song. Volunteers will be stationed at every location to offer assistance with voter registration and voter education.
“We want to create an event that is inspirational, but never didactic,” explains Benson. “The performers will be in conversation with each other and with the people around them, blending in, respecting and embracing whichever community we’re in.”
Each of the performances will be live-streamed and will also be augmented by a series of surprise appearances, posts and performances on the Fountain Theatre’s social media pages in support of voter awareness.
Send Us Your Selfie on Voting
Want to engage in the Fountain’s newest project? We want you to upload a short selfie video (2 mins or less) of yourself expressing how important it is to vote. Nothing fancy. Can literally be taken on a smartphone. Just speak from your heart. Be passionate. What does voting mean to you? Why does voting matter? Do you have a personal story about voting? These video selfies will air at the top of each hour, from 10am to 6pm, on all Fountain social platforms and website.
You (we) cannot endorse a specific candidate.
Do not mention Trump or Biden by name.
Shoot your selfie horizontal, not vertical.
The purpose of the event is to use theatre as a trigger to activate the public to vote, to emphasize the responsibility of voting, to remind each other of the price some have paid to vote, to express the urgency to participate in this election and in our democracy.
Raise Your Voice – Vote! is produced by Stephen Sachs and Simon Levy for the Fountain Theatre. James Bennett is live-stream editor, and Terri Roberts is volunteer coordinator. The event is underwritten by Miles and Joni Benickes, Diana Buckhantz, Karen Kondazian, Maggi Phillips, Susan Stockel, Dorothy Wolpert, and Don and Suzanne Zachary. Event partners include volunteer organizations The Social Ripple Effect and Big Sunday.
For more information, to find out how you can volunteer and to live-stream Raise Your Voice –Vote! on Oct. 24 and Oct. 25, go to www.fountaintheatre.com.